Frequently Asked Questions
Why does the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan fail the key tests for a healthy river?
The draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan which was released for public review in November 2011 fails the key tests for a healthy river. It proposed returning an additional (annual average) 2750 billion litres of water to the Murray-Darling Basin. This falls well below the 4000 billion litres (annual average) of additional flows that Australia’s leading river scientists recommend to make the wetlands and rivers healthy.
The most recent evidence that the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan does not meet the benchmark for a good plan is the CSIRO review commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). In May 2011 the MDBA asked CSIRO to review the methodology used in developing the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The full findings of the review panel were released along with the draft Basin Plan documents on November 28, 2011.
The most important finding is that 2750 billion litres of water will not meet the key environmental requirements. The other significant flaws identified by the review panel include:
- Climate change has not been accounted for in the modelling, with environmental water most likely to be compromised as a result,
- Limited use of ecological models and expert opinion, and
- Identifying just a handful of “key” sites in the basin
The review panel made it very clear that higher volumes needed to be modelled by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The Water Act 2007 which was passed by Federal Parliament and started the process of the development of a national plan for the Murray-Darling by an independent Basin Authority requires that ‘what the river needs’ is first identified and modelled in the plan. The draft Basin Plan fails this requirement by a very wide margin.
Member groups of the Voices for the Murray-Darling alliance have asked the MDBA and Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to urgently model returning 4000 billion litres of additional water to the environment and make this information publicly available.
What is the benchmark for a good Murray-Darling Basin Plan?
We all depend on the country’s lifeblood – the Murray Darling – it’s in our national interest to protect it. The benchmark for a good Plan, has to be a river that is not being poisoned by salt, that flows, and is alive. In order to be successful, the Basin Plan must return enough water to the rivers of the Basin to:
- Flush out the two million tonnes of salt that travels down the Murray-Darling in an average year so the water is usable;
- Keep the Murray mouth open without dredging to ensure a healthy, functioning estuary and lakes;
- Protect and restore the Basin’s key environmental assets and function. The Basin’s 16 internationally significant wetlands alone contribute $2.1 billion of benefits to the nation every year;
- Halt the decline of waterbirds, fish, red gums and other flora and fauna by providing enough water to trigger breeding events and sustain native species;
- Improve the resilience of the environment during ‘good’ years so that it so it copes much better during drought and is better prepared to weather the impacts of climate change which will include longer and harsher droughts with less available water for people, industry and the environment;
- Increase the frequency and duration of floodplain inundation so floodplain-dependent species, ecosystems and important, rural industries can flourish;
- Reduce the frequency of blue-green algal outbreaks and improve the quality of water throughout the Basin;
- Give Australians value for money because a bad Basin Plan will fail to make the Murray-Darling healthy, will waste the $10 billion of taxpayers’ money that has been set aside to help communities adjust to the changes required to address the unsustainable over-extraction of water and will put at risk the billions of dollars worth of ecosystem services that healthy river systems provide.
What are some of the credible sources of scientific information saying about the water flow requirements of the Murray-Darling?
The latest scientific information on the Murray-Darling makes it clear that in an average year a minimum of 4000 billion litres (1.6 million Olympic-size swimming pools) of additional freshwater is required to flow down the Murray-Darling to revive the wetlands and rivers and flush the salt out through the mouth of the river-system.
The Goyder report–a high level scientific analysis released by the South Australian government on June 7–is the latest scientific report which has confirmed that at least 4000 billion litres of additional water is required for the Murray-Darling. The report states that this will provide the internationally significant wetlands near the mouth of the Murray-Darling in South Australia a reasonable chance of surviving future droughts.
The CSIRO sustainable yields project report has found that water availability will most likely decline by around 11 percent across the entire Murray-Darling Basin region by 2030.
An environmental health check for the Basin’s 23 river valleys in the Sustainable Rivers Audit for 2004 -2007 found twenty of them to be in poor to very poor ecological condition.
The crisis of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin is driven by over-extraction of water, is exacerbated by drought and is likely to get worse under predicted climate change scenarios.
After the release of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in October 2010, Australia’s leading river scientists said in a joint statement that 3000 to 4000 billion litres of additional water proposed in the Guide is the “minimal requirement for ecosystem health”. They also said that the Guide “falls well short of the 7600 billion litres target that has been nominated for long-term sustainability”.
Why is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Murray-Darling?
The Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke remains committed to finalising the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by early 2012.
The Federal Government has also dedicated close to $10 billion to assist irrigators in adjusting to the changes towards a sustainable Murray-Darling Basin future.
More importantly, strong political consensus exists on the need to address unsustainable water use from the Murray-Darling.
In 2007 all sides of politics in all Murray-Darling Basin states, as well as the federal government, agreed that there was an urgent need to change the way water is managed in the Murray-Darling. This led to the passing of the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 through both Houses of Federal Parliament. The Act called for the establishment of the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) for the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, released in October 2010, was the step in this process.
The MDBA is likely to release the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan for public consultation in November 2011.
Having come so far, it is important to get the last few steps right. The draft and the final plan should be based on credible science and propose returning enough water to restore the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin to long-term health.
A watered down plan based on misinformation and politics will end up wasting $10 billion of Australian taxpayer’s money while failing to deliver what is required to make the Murray-Darling healthy.
The test for our leaders is whether or not we make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and establish sound economic and environmental management of our rivers.
What do Australians think about the problem with the Murray-Darling?
There is strong public support for returning water to the stressed rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, especially from rural communities.
- In a poll conducted in Aug 2010, eighty per cent of the 2,200 voters surveyed agreed that the Federal Government “should increase the share of water going into the Murray and Darling rivers and their wetlands, to a level that is considered safe by scientists and conservation organisations”.
- While 77 per cent of inner city people polled either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, in rural or regional areas support was 81 per cent.
- Whereas public support for reviving the Murray-Darling is the strongest in the downstream state of South Australia–where the worst impacts of unsustainable water use have been witnessed for decades–national polling also shows large-scale public support for the Murray-Darling from the upstream states of NSW and Victoria.
Have the recent floods in the Murray-Darling Basin fixed the problem?
The floods and rains across the Murray-Darling Basin have provided a lot of relief in the short-term. The floodplain wetlands have reconnected and the birds, fish and river red gums are recovering. The Murray-Darling has been able to keep its own mouth open, flushing the salt out to sea.
But one big flood in two decades cannot fix a problem created by several decades of unsustainable water use from the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. Australia is a continent of droughts and flooding rains–the flood waters will, in time, subside. Further, the environmental degradation and consequent social and economic impacts will be further exacerbated by climate change.
Communities and the economy rely on healthy rivers. We still urgently need to set fair but strong rules to reduce the over-use of water in the Murray-Darling, and help communities make the change into a sustainable water use future.
Australians want a national plan for the Murray-Darling before the next drought hits. A recent public opinion poll conducted across regional and urban Victoria showed that three-quarters of respondents support of a plan which will restore the rivers to health.
What are the social and economic impacts of environmental damage in the Basin?
The so-called business-as-usual scenario in the Murray-Darling Basin–unsustainable water use and a further deteriorating rivers and wetlands–is costing communities, tourism, grazing, fishing and other regional industries dearly, especially in the face of a drying climate.
Keeping the mouth of the Murray-Darling open is vital to exporting salt and nutrients from the Basin and maintaining the health of the Coorong. It is considered a critical indicator of the health of the entire Murray-Darling Basin. Chronic lack of fresh water flows down the Murray-Darling has closed its mouth and triggered a decline of the Basin’s health.
Near the mouth of the Murray-Darling in South Australia, lack of water flows, increasing salinity and poor water quality has led to the collapse of businesses and communities: the number of dairy farms near the mouth of the Murray-Darling in South Australia has reduced from 23 to three.
In the Guide to the Basin Plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has said ‘the real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long term economic and social viability of many industries…’ Some of the known social and economic impacts listed in the Guide to the Basin Plan are:
- Community well-being has been significantly impacted by psychological and other health impacts from stress, feelings of spiritual and emotional loss, reduction of amenity and the blowing of acid sulphate soils in strong winds
- Drought and low river flows caused the loss of $134m in gross regional product
- The costs of remedial engineering and infrastructure interventions in the Coorong and Lower Lakes are estimated at $2bn
- Total flow at the Murray Mouth has been reduced by 61 percent. The river now ceases to flow through the mouth 40 percent of the time compared with 1 percent of the time in the absence of water resource development.
The current lack of water in the Lower Lakes of the Murray River has resulted in significant economic costs that would be reduced by bringing the river back to health: a commercial fishing industry worth $5.5 million has been threatened and the mouth of the river has required constant dredging to keep it open, costing more than $33 million.
Is there any real evidence to prove that reviving the Murray-Darling will provide social and economic benefits instead of resulting in job losses in regional towns?
There is plenty of credible evidence to show that returning the Murray-Darling Basin to a healthy condition will provide strong social and economic benefits for Australia.
The Guide to the Basin Plan found that:
- Returning water to the river will reduce salinity and improve water quality with a benefit of $350m to food production and drinking-water treatment in the lower Murray
- A healthy Murray will deliver more water birds, more native fish, end the decline of river red gums and improve water quality
- The Murray Mouth will be kept open 97 years in 100, rather than 64 years in 100 as it is now.
Independent economic assessment found that if the quality of the Coorong also improved from poor quality to good quality, the total change in non-use value (present value) for the Murray River and the Coorong would be approximately $7.5bn.
The Guide to the Basin Plan had reported that 800 jobs will be lost from a reduction of 3000–4000 gigalitres (GL) of water diversions. It has found that there could also be reductions in the gross value of irrigated agriculture between $800 million and $1,075 million per year or 13–17 per cent.
However in the debate so far, critical pieces of information have not yet been presented. This has prevented us from having a fully informed discussion of the socio-economic impacts (costs and benefits) of reduced water allocations. Critically, the focus of debate has remained stubbornly away from the real and direct economic benefits of increased environmental flows. We know that a river in poor health is costing parts of the Basin community dearly. There are economic gains to be made from restoring the river system to good health and some of these have been quantified.
For example, the natural resources of the Basin provide a basis for a thriving tourism industry with many recreational activities. The value of this industry has been estimated at over $3.4 billion.
Wetlands (as well as healthy rivers) provide free critical services like water filtration and storage, and habitat and drought refuge for wildlife that underpin a robust rural economy.
A recent assessment by the Australian Conservation Foundation has also found that the value of the services provided by the 16 internationally listed wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin is in the range of $2.1 billion.
This benefit alone (without considering other benefits such as tourism and recreation) truly overwhelms the projected reduction in gross agricultural output of irrigators from the reduced water diversions as mentioned in the Guide to the Basin Plan.
What will happen to farmers and irrigators who have to give up their water?
The Federal Government’s ongoing program to buy permanent water entitlements in the water market–from farmers and irrigators who are willing sellers–has proven to be the most effective way of returning water to the wetlands of the Murray-Darling.
The buyback program has provided farmers and irrigators much needed flexibility by helping reduce debt during drought years and given them a choice to transition to other forms of livelihood.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be finalised in 2012. It is likely to set a definite target for the amount of water which needs to be permanently returned to the Murray-Darling. The recovery of water for the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin will continue in the current manner into the future until this target is met, For more information read the paper “Why water buybacks are essential to the Murray‐Darling”.
Can the problems of the Coorong and Lower Lakes be fixed by simply removing the barrages and letting sea water flood the Lakes?
Recently large advertisements wrongly suggesting the Murray can be saved by removing the barrages and inundating the Lower Lakes with salt water appeared in major newspapers across Australia.
This is a hugely misleading campaign bankrolled by some vested interests who oppose returning a fair share of freshwater to the Murray-Darling. It denies that decades of over-use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is a problem. It argues that lakes Albert and Alexandrina in South Australia were estuarine rather than freshwater before European settlement, using evidence which is selective to the point of lacking credibility.
If the solution were that simple, then Australia’s top river scientists–who have been studying these rivers for decades and have been warning us about the impacts of unsustainable water use in the Murray-Darling Basin–must have been misleading the public!
A large body of historical evidence demonstrates that Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert contained freshwater prior to European settlement, with seawater mixing occurring only south of Point Sturt. One such source of evidence is the teaching stories of the Ngarrindjeri people, which make significant references to freshwater plants and animals in the lakes.
At a time when major decisions that could seal the fate of the Basin are on the horizon, the equivalent of climate-change sceptics are trying to confuse and derail the process by advertising a simplistic, local solution to a complex, national problem.
 Hera-Singh (2002). Fishing Industry, in The Murray Mouth: Exploring the implications of closure or restricted flow, a report prepared for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation, Adelaide and Campbell,T, Brown R, & Erdmann, B, Murray Mouth Sand Pumping, paper presented to the River Symposium, accessed at www.riversymposium.com/index.php?element=CAMPBELL_Tom_FullPaper
 Morrison, M. and Hatton, D., Economic Valuation of Environmental Benefits in the Murray-Darling Basin. Report Prepared for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, MDBA, Canberra, 2010
 Murray-Darling Basin Commission website, www2.mdbc.gov.au/about/tour_the_basin/riverine.html